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executive transition

Smart Planning for Executive Transitions: When Time Is Not On Your Side (Part 2)

This is the second part of our two-part series on executive transitions. If you missed the first one, you can read some tips for handling a planned executive transition here.

Transitions are high stakes for both companies and investors. It’s emotional, especially if an organization has seen a lot of executive turnover in a short time. In fact, 70% of CEOs and managers—i.e., people leaders—are considering quitting. Experts suggest that emotional burnout, the stress of the pandemic, and the shifting labor market and economy are all likely contributing to this trend. 

Executive turnover brings up a variety of reactions. While some employees get very anxious about having to manage or “break in” the new leader, others—like those who were “quiet quitting” before it was a thing–check out entirely. Neither extreme is healthy for individuals or companies.

In Part 2 of our Executive Transition Series, we’ll consider a situation that’s a bit different than the planned exit of a long-term CEO. 

Imagine it’s three years into the pandemic, and your current leader, who has been with the company for two years, has admirably faced the challenges the pandemic brought to all organizations. Although she has managed quite well, another opportunity comes up and she submits her two weeks’ notice.

Without a transition plan in place, the company could be thrown into chaos. Some employees may have come to the company only to work with her, and others might be suspicious of how leaders are going to handle the change, or whether the company has a future at all. Executive  transitions are emotional and complex, and the fact is that there isn’t always time to prepare.

In a case like this, context will drive a strategic communications plan. What’s the context around the exiting CEO? What is the plan for the interim leader? Are we looking internally or externally? Most importantly, how do we set up a new leader for success and demonstrate stability to our employees?

4 Tips for Unplanned Transitions

 1. Storytelling

 This tops our list again because storytelling is how humans best connect and communicate. That doesn’t mean telling fairytales—employees can tell when a communication is bullsh*t or hiding the truth. It is important, as much as is professionally appropriate, to be honest about why change is coming. 

Tell the truth and allow room for employees to both have and share their thoughts and feelings about what’s happening. You’d be surprised at how much it helps to have leadership acknowledge that a particular situation is really challenging. Otherwise, you risk making employees feel as if they’re being gaslighted. Transitions are inherently challenging, and employees need to know they’re not alone in feeling it.

2. Due diligence

You’ve made space for the feelings, and now it’s time to do your due diligence. This has two parts: finding your next leader, and continuing to achieve your goals.

Finding a new leader will be your utmost priority. Most likely, your Board of Directors will take the lead to determine an interim leader and initiate a search for the next leader. You’ll need to announce and introduce the interim leader while also giving employees, customers, and partners a sense for the plan to find your new executive.

Finally, you want to help your team keep their eyes on the prize, whether that’s increasing sales or another goal for this quarter. Transition can be a major distraction. While it’s okay to acknowledge feelings of uncertainty, it’s also important to support your team in moving forward. 

As the saying goes, companies are bigger than one person; success is shared vision and collective action. By providing the right support, you can empower your team to keep pursuing the strategy. This will not only help maintain a sense of stability and continuity, but it also ensures you avoid larger business problems if performance falls off.  

 3. Fact finding

This is related to storytelling, but it’s different because this is not just about providing employees with a narrative that they can understand. It’s also about addressing any unanswered questions that may surround the circumstances of the exiting CEO and the changes that are coming.

People should be able to ask questions and feel they’re being heard. They should be able to say, “you’re the third CEO in three years, why should we trust that you’ll stay?” The sooner you get it all out there, the sooner you can move on. 

If you don’t answer the questions your employees have, they will fill in the blanks. It is better to be transparent and to provide honest answers to the difficult questions. Sometimes the honest answer is, “we don’t know yet” or “we’re still looking into it.” That’s okay. Better to be honest and give a sense for what you expect to be a timeline to an answer. This will build trust and, if done well, help with employee retention. 

4. Introducing New Leadership

As with planned transitions, employees want to know who the new leader is. In an unplanned transition, and especially a fast one, there might be more skepticism and suspicion. Being as transparent as possible about the new leader’s background and vision are crucial. What’s her background? Does she prefer to hire from specific universities? What’s her vision for the next five or ten years? 

Offer employees a variety of opportunities to talk with and about the incoming leader, and keep in mind that everyone has different levels of comfort with asking questions. Consider holding “Donut Wednesdays,” fireside chats, and other informal channels where leadership and teams can connect. You might also offer webinars where more introverted employees can submit questions virtually. As much as you can, provide ample time and spaces for teams to have conversations with transitioning executives as well.

The Need for Strategy

 Executive transitions—whether planned or unplanned—require strategy and careful planning. Storytelling, transparency, and diligence can help ease the growing pains of your company. However, it’s important to note that there are important and subtle differences in strategy for planned and unplanned transitions. 

For instance, employees are far more likely to feel insecure about their job and the future of the company amidst an unplanned transition. And without careful communication, rumors are more likely to distract from workplace goals. Honesty, diligence, and insight into company culture and employee needs are key for maintaining normalcy and retaining your valued employees.

 In all cases, I recommend you use a variety of channels and venues to soothe your most anxious employee and to engage your most checked out employee. Hold fireside chats, host Q&A sessions, send email updates from the hiring team, and create spaces for leadership to connect with their teams.

 Transitions can be chaotic, but they can also be opportunities to engage employees, customers and partners. A smart executive transition can open up a gold mine of insight into how these stakeholder sets are feeling about the company more generally. With the right support, you can use the transition as an opportunity to zero in on your systems and communications. If you’re willing to be present with the process, the results can be better than you ever imagined.

Want an experienced set of eyes to help guide your executive transition plan, or don’t know where to begin? Audacia can help. Reach out to us for a consultation here.

Photo credit: Young Businesswoman Receiving Praise From Her Colleagues During A Meeting In A Modern Office by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

executive transition

Smart Planning for Executive Transitions: When You See It Coming (Part 1)

Transitions, including executive transitions, are high stakes for companies for obvious reasons. They bring about logistical, bureaucratic, professional, and emotional challenges for everyone involved. That’s why we’ve created a two-part Executive Transition Series to help you out during seasons of change in your company. 

Executives can be a powerful retention mechanism, or the reason people leave. Consider the old adage, people quit bosses, not jobs. Alternatively, sometimes employees come to a company to work with a particular leader. What happens when that leader leaves? And what about when veteran employees have worked with the same leader for multiple years, and a new leader radically changes the culture? These are tough questions, and not ones you can sweep under the rug.

The key for dealing with executive transitions is communication. It’s important to tailor your strategy to the kind of transition you’re facing. On the one hand, you might be facing a planned transition—one that’s been on the horizon for months or years. On the other hand, you might have a leader—maybe one who hasn’t even been around very long—give two weeks notice. These are two very different situations, and having a strategic communications plan can help you make it through either one.

In this two-part series, we’ll consider both situations. First, we’ll consider some tips for handling a planned transition.

4 Tips for Planned Transitions

Executive transition is a specialty of ours here at Audacia Strategies. Let me share one of my favorite engagements and biggest client wins when supporting a client through a planned transition. Recently, Audacia was brought on board to help with an executive transition in a software company. The outgoing senior executive was the founder of the company and also an avid, talented guitarist. A low key rockstar, if you will. The company culture was centered around music: leadership documents were full of music analogies, guitars were given as gifts, leaders put their favorite song in their website bio–you get the picture.

The leader planned his exit and helped to identify a new CEO. The new CEO was brilliant—he had run billion-dollar organizations and grew up playing chess blind-folded! While this new CEO was a great fit to guide the company to its next phase of growth, he was different from the founder-CEO. An executive transition is one thing, but the reality is that the company was also about to undergo a cultural transition.

How do you manage the exit in a case like this? Here’s the playbook we advised.

1. Storytelling

As long as people have been around, they have connected over stories. We made space for the outgoing CEO to share his story, and time to celebrate his work with the company. Just like a graduation or retirement party, this allows for closure and creates appropriate professional space for processing the (big) feelings that come with transitions.

 2. Getting to know the new leader

 In addition to telling the story of the outgoing CEO’s time, we worked with the incoming CEO to help him identify and share his story. This humanized an ultra-smart leader and gave employees a chance to get to know him and understand his priorities and what makes him tick. 

We also advised on creating plenty of opportunities and multiple channels to engage with the CEO and ask questions. Unanswered questions can leave employees feeling ungrounded and many may be too intimidated to ask the hard (or even simple!) questions. 

We always advise to be as open as possible and provide opportunities for interaction in multiple formats (in-person, online, large group, small group, 1-to-1). Transparency and accessibility are key for maintaining and building trust.

3. Working with the team

The logistics and bureaucracy involved in a transition are not to be underestimated; however, it’s also important to work closely with the team. Share the transition plan, let your executive team know what is coming and let them weigh in on what they and their teams need. And, practically speaking, set expectations about which responsibilities will be redistributed, who will be responsible for training whom, and so on. Executives have questions too–give them time to process the transition and bring their questions to the new executives or trusted confidants. 

4. Mind your communications

We trade a lot in written word, scripts, and talking points. Emails and other written messages are important artifacts that preserve institutional memory long after the transition. Because everyone can look back and see where leaders followed through and where they didn’t, it’s important to be consistent across multiple mediums (video intros of a new CEO, webcast town hall, in-person meet and greets, welcome letter, and so on). 

Perhaps even more importantly, organizations should make sure messaging is consistent across informal communications as well. During times of transition, employees will first bring their worries and questions to direct supervisors and peers. The executive team and their team needs to be on the same page so they’re ready to help their teams navigate organizational changes. During times change most employees and customers will turn to their line manager or customer success contact for reassurance, make sure these critical team members have the information, resources, and support they need to succeed.  

Concluding Thoughts

 Planned transitions are admittedly easier than unplanned transitions; however, planned transitions can still be destabilizing to company culture. At worst, transitions can result in employee turnover, loss of trust, lost business momentum, and a decline in workplace climate if you don’t go in with a strategy. It’s important to keep in mind both the emotional and logistical challenges of executive transitions.

We often think about corporations as faceless entities, but in moments of transition, we are reminded that corporations are made up of people who have hearts and minds. The more you share your story honestly, transparently, and thoughtfully, the more you can weather this season of transition while building long-term trust and continuing to achieve your company goals.

If you don’t have the luxury of a planned transition and are facing an imminent unplanned transition, read the next part of our two-part series where we’ll discuss tips for handling an unplanned executive transition.

If you’re facing a transition—planned or unplanned—and you’re trying to find the right strategy, Audacia has you covered. Reach out to us here to schedule a consultation.

Photo Credit: Black Male And White Female Business Associates Shaking Hands In Hallway by Flamingo Images from NounProject.com

CEO communications

3 Questions Every CEO Needs to Understand to Communicate with Investors

Communicating with investors is one of the most important tasks CEOs need to master. But strong CEO communications might not be beneficial only for the reasons you expect.

All companies want to hire charismatic leaders with strong communication skills. What you might not realize, though, is that a CEO’s communication style and presence can actually impact corporate value. According to a 2020 study, companies led by a CEO who communicates effectively, better withstood the initial negative share price impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, communicating with investors takes a special touch. Investors are a tough audience. The most successful investors approach new investment opportunities with healthy skepticism. And how CEOs respond to skeptical investors is key. Investors look for authenticity, authority, and credibility.

In our article for the Harvard Business Review, Audacia Strategies Partner and CEO of Green Room Speakers, Sarah Gershman and I distilled our advice from 20 years of experience working with executives and investors to three core questions. Here, let’s look at strategies CEOs can implement to better connect with investors.

1. Is the CEO confident, without being overconfident?

Investors want to see a CEO who has confidence in their company without being blind to the real challenges they are facing. We like to call this “reasoned confidence.” An overly optimistic presentation runs the risk of losing credibility. As one investor put it, “Don’t be a LEGO-movie leader telling us that ‘everything is awesome.’”

Reasoned confidence is especially critical during specific types of CEO communications, especially crisis communications. Feeling overconfident during a crisis can lead to over-promising or what I like to call the Top Gun Problem: “Your ego is writing checks your body (or in this case, your business) can’t cash” (and with the release of the new Top Gun: Maverick, this reference is more relevant than ever).

To avoid over-promising during a crisis do the following:

  • Triage: You can’t put out all of the fires simultaneously. Instead, you need to prioritize carefully and make hard decisions about where to distribute your attention. An investor relations professional can help you with this.
  • Be transparent: It’s important to set expectations with investors – and other stakeholders! – during a crisis. But if you try to do this in a way that could be perceived as a cover up, you’re digging yourself deeper. Be honest and up-front about issues and what you don’t know.
  • Continue to monitor the situation carefully: Your initial statement is only the beginning. You next need to implement the crisis plan and follow through on your commitments. The absolute worst outcome after a crisis is for a new crisis to develop as a result of mishandling the original crisis.
  • Keep internal communications open: It’s critical to maintain an open dialog within your company, especially during a credibility crisis. In addition to stabilizing the team when they can feel in freefall, employees are your frontline communicators to customers and business partners. 

2. Is the CEO a straight talker?

In addition to being overconfident, CEOs may overcompensate by trying to gloss over the truth or talking in circles. Say it with me: More words does not equate to better outcomes. We often work with CEOs to ensure that they use plain language and give the news to their investors straight. 

Further, while strong preparation is crucial for investor presentations, it is possible to over-rehearse, over-polish, and completely forget about connecting with your audience. An overly polished presentation can leave the audience wondering whether you’re simply telling them what they want to hear.

Investors want to feel seen and heard in a way that sounds authentic and credible. It’s time to get human. Here’s how:

  • Think like a reporter: Journalists are trained to give the who, what, where, when, and how of a story in the first sentence or two when reporting on a story. Replicate this tactic by getting your communications teams together (or go outside of these departments for a different perspective) to brainstorm.
  • Dump the buzzwords: Buzzwords do more than whitewash the stuff we don’t want to talk about. They also obscure your message and make your organization seem less authentic. If you confuse investors with jargon or industry terminology, they will ignore you.
  • Get vulnerable: If you’ve faced a genuine struggle that has made you rethink your company, now may be the time to pull it out and share what you learned. Don’t be afraid to step back from the spreadsheets and share your bigger vision with investors.
  • Step away from the webinars: The formality of webinars can result in investors feeling totally disconnected. Consider how you can incorporate less formal discussions, roundtables, open mic Q&As, etc. While it may make sense to give a short written statement or update to kick off an investor meeting, listening to written remarks being read for any longer than 10-minute intervals is probably too much to ask from those on the other side of the camera.

3. Do they know how to listen? 

Sure, as a CEO, you likely know how to talk. It’s tough to become a successful leader without having the ability to communicate your vision with others. But, how good are you at listening?

Listening is one of the most undervalued skills of CEO communications and a CEO who lacks the ability to listen happens to be one of the biggest red flags for an investor. For CEOs who master the art of listening, however, answering questions from investors can be a great way to boost your credibility. Every question expresses a need, and your answer should show that you hear what’s behind the question. 

A question about your research and development investment strategy, for instance, may actually also be about whether an investor can trust you with their money. If you can’t suss out the deeper need, then you may need to ask for clarification before attempting an answer.

One way to make sure to prioritize listening is to run a murder board before the presentation. To make sure you’re prepared for investors, you’ll want to call in your toughest internal financial analysts and encourage them to live out their wildest inner Shark Tank dreams. Assemble your investor relations murder board and have them begin coming up with “tricky” questions regarding different angles on your message and the numbers.

For example, suppose your firm calls for 10% year-over-year growth. That sounds amazing to your team, unless your biggest competitor comes out with an expected 15% growth rate. Now you’re behind in an investor’s eyes. What does it mean for your business and key competitive differentiators?

This type of preparation can remind you to listen closely to the question and its intent, focus on the facts and not speculation, and practice answering in a way that connects with the audience.

There’s no doubt investors are a tough audience. We have found that the best investor presentations happen when CEOs stop focusing on their own performance and instead speak to investors using reasoned confidence, straight talking, and masterful listening.

For more tips about how CEOs can prepare to answer these three core questions, read the original article in the Harvard Business Review. And if you’d like to learn more about how Audacia Strategies can help you prepare for your next investor meeting, schedule an initial consultation.

Photo credit: Professional Woman Standing In Boardroom Giving Speech To Team by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

transformative change

“Are We There Yet?” — Change, Communications, and Culture

If there’s anything that’s more difficult than transformative change, it’s communicating about transformative change. And let’s face it, the past two years have been defined by change.

As leaders of organizations living through a profound period of global change, we’ve learned some powerful lessons:

  • The future will not be more stable or more certain.
  • Black swans feel much different when we live through them (sometimes multiple times), than when we read about them in economics textbooks.
  • Disruption or large scale change cannot be contained to one aspect of life.

In short, societal shifts spill over into personal and business life, business upheaval impacts personal and societal security, and uncertainty about personal health throws a wrench into every aspect of life. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, transformative change comes for all of us.

With the hindsight of the last few years, now is the time to review our approach to change and ask ourselves how we can better prepare for and communicate about the next wave of transformative change. Let’s take a closer look at the core aspects of strong communication here.

The Pulse of the Organization

Exhausted organizations do not handle change, let alone transformation, well. Think about how well you operate after a series of all-nighters. Even the thought of having to eat — to survive! — feels like a monumental task. Similarly, exhausted organizations can barely perform key functions, which doesn’t bode well for facing changes with grace.

When leaders continually keep their fingers on the pulse of their organizations, however, they are less likely to lead exhausted organizations and much better positioned to handle transformation. Keeping your finger on the pulse means recognizing when your people are being pushed to their breaking point and making the necessary adjustments needed.

How do you take the pulse of your organization?

  • Get to know your employees and customers: Use pulse surveys (Voice of the Employee (VoE), Voice of the Customer (VoC) surveys), “ask me anything” sessions (AMAs), virtual and IRL coffee chats, town halls, skip level meetings, “walking the halls” (for those back in the office).
  • Get to know your leaders: Keep tabs on your people leaders and customer leaders too. Managers can often be the linchpins of culture and influencers of others.
  • Ban the “just deal with it” mentality: Of course, decisions need to be made and transformative change must go on, but if your strategy is to tell your people to “just deal with it,” then you have a failed strategy on your hands. Instead, build a plan with the tools, support, resources, and aircover they need…and be ready to adjust. 

Transformative Change and Culture

Taking the pulse of your organization is only the beginning of figuring out how to communicate about transformative change. To really pull this off, you also need to consider the culture on a deeper level.

Having a change playbook is important, to a point (and lord knows you can find a consultant who will sell you one), but remember that a guide is just that — a guide. There may be times when what your team really needs is for you to set that playbook on fire (maybe even literally).

Here are some areas to consider when it comes to culture: 

  • Consider what is authentic to your organization. What is the general tone of communication? And if there was ever a time to be more transparent, more honest, more plain spoken…transformative change is that time.
  • Consider who is trusted in your organization. Perhaps the Board of Directors is more trusted than management (I’ve worked there). Or perhaps long-tenured middle management is trusted more than the new or newer executives? Understanding these relationships and building that into your strategy is crucial.
  • Consider why you’re doing what you’re doing and have a good answer. Just because “all the other $1B organizations” use top-down communications for layoffs, doesn’t mean that you have to. Keep in mind, “because I said so” is not a successful strategy for successful change.
  • Consider what you are asking of your team and customers. Transformative change, or any change (hello, Atomic Habits), requires commitment. It’s about the larger purpose and that’s generally an emotional ask. You are asking your team and your customers not just to help you make a business change, but to take a journey with you toward achieving your organizational purpose — which will solve more customer problems, make the world a better place, make the organization a better place to work, or any combination thereof.

A Few More Do’s and Don’ts

Once you have thought through the lay of the land and have the big picture in front of you, here are a few more do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.

1. Don’t sand down the edges on the executive team. 

Whether it’s a layoff, a major acquisition, or an IPO, your people are your biggest asset — yes, even in the metaverse. And employees, customers, and the media are all looking for leaders to lead and exhibit humanity.

In a recent interview, Brian Chesky, the CEO of AirBnB, said it well, 

“I think CEOs and leaders are more human than they come across. I mean most of these people are real people. They do have feelings. I think the problem with corporations is the lawyers and the HR people and the others, ‘sand the edges’ off the person in an effort to protect the person. And, that is a major disservice because they just reduce them to something that’s not even a human being anymore, they’re just this very cold person.” 

Of course, you need to work with your executives to communicate in a way that complies with the law and represents the organization appropriately, but this is very different from turning them into robots who are afraid to show any glimmer of vulnerability.

2. Do acknowledge the suckiness, if it sucks.

You may be surprised at how much resistance to transformative change can be relieved with a simple acknowledgment of how difficult it is. When it feels like you’re the only one feeling the pain, change can be a really lonely place. Often your people just need you to see them doing their best through an objectively sucky situation. And if it sucks for you too, talk about it.

3. Do acknowledge the excitement of the future, as appropriate.

As hard as it can be, change also usually comes with a lot of excitement. Don’t be afraid to embrace the excitement and display appreciation for the teams that will make the change happen.

4. Don’t promise a return to the status quo.

Never offer to “stop the change.” It may be tempting to try to relieve the pain of transformative change by promising a return to the status quo on a particular date, for example. This falls into the category of promises you can’t keep, though. Sure, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, a product launch, a closing date on the merger, but even those flashpoint events aren’t likely to spell the end of change. 

We’re all changing, all the time. Our environment is changing, the market is changing, society is changing. All we can do is remain in a ready stance — flexible, fluid, optimistic, and ready to roll with the next pivot or “tweak.”

Finally, I want to leave you with some more words of wisdom from Brian Chesky because these two sentences are really all you need to know when it comes to communicating about transformative change: “Just do whatever you think is the right thing at that moment. Take care of people and then they’ll root for you.”

And you know Audacia Strategies is here for you. We’re ready to help you better prepare for and communicate about the next wave of transformative change. Let’s talk!

Photo credit: Businessman Applauding With His Colleagues During A Presentation by Flamingo Images from NounProject.com

planning for the future

What’s On the Agenda for 2022?

If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen, heard, and read one too many articles about trends for 2022. I even published a 2022 trend article myself. And as much as I enjoy thinking about and planning for the future with Audacia’s incredible clients, I’m also a realist.

Has anyone effectively predicted anything during the past two years? Fortunately, we don’t need to predict the future to build a solid strategy. What if we, instead, accepted the uncertainty and focused on building flexibility and the capacity for resilience inside our organizations?

With this in mind, let’s discuss what’s in, what’s out, and preview the flexible plan we’re implementing at Audacia Strategies this year.

What’s In

As we continue to watch workplaces shift and organizations rethink how productivity happens, some corporate culture trends have real staying power.

1. Building corporate trust.

The pandemic continues to erode public trust in large institutions. Early last year, when we were mostly feeling optimistic about a swift return to normalcy, we talked about ways corporations could begin rebuilding trust. Back then, public trust of businesses stood at 61%, higher than any other institution, according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer.

Now, after enduring another year of working from home and dealing with the uncertainty of the delta and omicron variants, many of us have given up on the concept of “a return to normalcy” entirely. And the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that business holds onto its position as the most trusted institution, with even greater expectations due to government’s failure to lead during the pandemic.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • By an average of a five-to-one margin, respondents in the 28 countries surveyed want business to play a larger role on climate change, economic inequality, workforce re-skilling and addressing racial injustice. 
  • All stakeholders want business to fill the void, with nearly 60% of consumers buying brands based on their values and beliefs, almost 6 in 10 employees choosing a workplace based on shared values and expecting their CEO to take a stand on societal issues, and 64% of investors looking to back businesses aligned with their values. 

“Business must now be the stabilizing force delivering tangible action and results on society’s most critical issues,” said Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. “Societal leadership is now a core function of business.”

2. Establishing credibility as a trusted information source.

The 2022 Trust Barometer also revealed that trust in news and information sources has eroded over the past decade. Trust in all news sources has dropped (with the exception of owned media, which rose one point to 43%). Social media experienced the sharpest decline at eight points to 37%, followed by traditional media dropping five points to 57%.

In addition, concern over fake news being used as a weapon has risen to an all-time high of 76%. And the most credible source of information is communications from ‘My Employer’ (65%). 

Clearly, trust is at a premium now, which means there’s also a huge opportunity for organizations to establish credibility as a source of reliable information. Doing so will likely require skillful repetition of the truth and transparency in your internal and external communications.

It’s more difficult than ever for consumers to sift through all the available content and find useful information. Making increasing trust a part of your firms’ strategic plan in 2022 could be a serious differentiator.

3. Staying nimble.

Also, with all the challenges to public trust and uncertainty in the air, perhaps the best strategy for thriving in 2022 is to stay nimble. Where can you keep your strategic options open?

If you’re working on an M&A deal this year, for example, positioning your organization for the sale is key:

  • As your business model and corporate strategy shift with the times, you may need to re-evaluate how M&A fits.
  • Keep in mind that there are more options for M&A available now, such as SPACs and other non-traditional financial configurations.
  • Make sure your due diligence covers more than just the financials. The unfolding of the criminal trial and conviction of Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of the debunked medical startup, Theranos, has driven home this point. Many Theranos investors have been criticized for not doing the proper due diligence.

What’s Out

With the above in mind, let’s turn to what’s striking a discordant note with consumers, investors, and trend-setters.

1. Overpaying for an acquisition.

We’ve seen some of the highest M&A deal volumes ever in the past year, and multiples are at record highs. Still, the M&A market remains competitive. While many deals are worth the multiple, there’s no good reason to overpay for an acquisition. 

In fact, we see firms making this mistake for a variety of reasons:

  • Deal fever: It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a bidding war. Instead, be willing to walk away from a deal that doesn’t really work.
  • Cutting corners on due diligence: Due diligence is like going to the dentist. If you don’t do the preventative work, you may end up needing a root canal.
  • Not getting real about your competition: The deal will have ripple effects. Do your best to anticipate how it will affect your competitors and the market in general.
  • Getting entranced by “synergies” [or insert your favorite buzzword]: Don’t fall for talk that sounds good but isn’t backed up by substance. Always have a gut check strategy.

What we recommend: A comprehensive integration strategy that goes beyond IT systems and benefits (both vital!) and addresses culture, leadership style, behavior expectations, and just plain “what’s in it for me?” And by the way, this comprehensive integration strategy should include perspectives from employees, customers, and investors.

Consider one of my favorite quotes from Dan Doran: “Value is analyzed, price is negotiated.” Write it down on a sticky note and keep it top of mind for deal negotiations.

2. Mixed messages to employees and customers.

Remember how we’re inundated with information and unsure whether we can trust any of it? Well, one thing that contributes to this paucity of trust is mixed messages. So replace complex, inconsistent, and vague messages with simple, consistent, and transparent communications.

And also, it can’t hurt to approach all messaging with a healthy dose of realism and empathy. For many, January 2022 feels an awful lot like April 2020. Pandemic fatigue is at an epic level and right now it’s hard to be an employee, a leader, a customer, an investor, a parent, a kid, a teacher, a doctor, a nurse…a human.

3. Everything being a top priority.

With everything we have to deal with on a daily basis, we don’t need the added burden of everything feeling urgent. So it’s best to think extra carefully about your real top priorities as an organization. 

Employee burnout is real. Customer burnout is real. No one has the patience to discern what’s a true priority. If you treat every task or project as if it’s Defcon Level 5, you’re likely to invoke a fight, flight, or freeze response.

Instead, pick your top goals, staff out each project appropriately, and give realistic deadlines, all with team input. Then maintain productivity by communicating your priorities and why to all levels and all stakeholders.

What We’re Doing at Audacia Strategies

Of course, by now, you know we at Audacia are always thinking about how we can walk our talk and 2022 is no exception. 

Here’s what we’re doing to build flexibility and the capacity for resilience:

  • Lots of deep breaths.
  • One of our guiding principles: Start with empathy.
  • Recommitting to our values and actively building our culture around them.
  • Focusing on prioritizing our business investments: We’re doubling down on what has worked by augmenting our offerings and building our capacity to support executive transitions, exits (IPOs, M&A), and refreshed marketing positioning.
  • Focusing on building our kick*ss team: We are proud to work with professionals who are the best of the best in their field, highly respected, customer-focused, awesome people with a fabulous sense of humor, and are no bullsh*t team players. We’ve already announced that IR pro, Mike Pici, joined the leadership team, and you can check out our team page to find out more about our strategic partnerships.
  • More deep breaths…

If the question of building a solid strategy amidst chaos and uncertainty has your organization reaching for the Magic Eight Ball, contact us instead to schedule a consultation

We haven’t been able to predict the future (yet!), but we do help clients develop strategies for dealing with anticipated and unanticipated transformations, and we can do the same for your organization.

Photo credit: Business Colleagues Having A Meeting Discussing Graphs And Figures by Flamingo Images from NounProject.com

M&A trends 2022

Considering an M&A Deal in 2022? Keep an Eye on These Trends

With 2021 firmly in the rearview mirror, now is a good time to explore the merger and acquisition (M&A) outlook for 2022. After an historic year, fueled by a backlog of deals from 2020, soaring global markets, plenty of access to capital, advantageous changes to tax rates, and attractive valuations, investment professionals expect a still active but cooler market in 2022.

While many of the factors that contributed to global M&A volumes topping $5 trillion for the first time remain in play, they are less pronounced. And dealmakers agree that deal volume peaked in August of 2021. This coupled with the likely rise of interest rates this year, which will increase the cost of debt, could impact valuations and slow deal volume.

Despite these potential headwinds, if you’re considering launching an M&A deal on either the buy or sell side in Q1 or Q2 of 2022, you’ll likely find a busy dealmaking environment. So let’s discuss the M&A outlook and what to watch as you prepare your materials.

Takeaways from 2021 M&A Activity

During a panel discussion at the end of last year, my fellow panelists and I discussed strategic M&A opportunities for investors and the M&A outlook for 2022. To watch the full panel discussion, click here.

As we kept an eye on deals playing out at the end of 2021, here are our biggest takeaways:

  • Private equity will continue to play a huge role: Private equity firms played a huge role in M&A deals in 2021 and will continue to do so. According to one report, private equity now accounts for 30% of M&A activity. This makes sense because with the market surge, private investors have a record amount of dry powder (capital) available.
  • Valuation/multiples have been climbing but will likely level out: Most M&A professionals believe that valuations in several sectors have reached their peak — or are borderline frothy. It’s hard to envision a scenario where valuations would be significantly higher a year from now and likewise, few see valuations dropping significantly. Experts expect valuations to settle at a sustainable level in the next few months.
  • More selective deal strategies are on the horizon: While few practitioners expect a slowdown of the M&A market, many see more selective deal strategies on the horizon. We’ll likely see megadeals playing a transformational role and smaller, tuck-in acquisitions playing an increasingly important role for small- and medium-sized companies looking to build and scale capacity quickly with less integration risk.

Key Differentiators Remain

Looking at the big picture, key differentiators remain. Whether you are on the buy side or the sell side, you and your team will want to keep the following in mind:

1. Integration matters.

If you aren’t looking past the deal to the future, then you will be at a distinct disadvantage when negotiating. On the buyside, you’ll want to be ready to share your integration plan. Show your awareness of everything from projected revenues to cultural implications to talent management. Changes to the labor market, for example, could complicate your deal. Be ready to prove that you’re aware of these details.

On the sellside, you’ll want to make integration easy to whatever extent is possible. Identify and mitigate key risks early both in the external competitive market and in the internal workings of the company. In addition to risk mitigation, look for opportunities to create value. Be prepared to talk about how you can add value and the quickest path to increased profits as you see it.

2. Keep non-financial due diligence on your radar.

The M&A outlook also reminds us that there are a lot of factors that can affect deal success and financial performance, but which are non-financial in nature. In fact, 70-90% of M&A deals fail due to non-financial aspects. 

Show your deal partners that you know where the non-financial risks and opportunities lie for your brand. Dig deep into factors such as executive reputation, employee sentiment, culture, and communication style.

Management’s credibility is also important to convey. Develop your story connecting your managers and executives to the company’s mission, vision, and values. The more you can show leadership as standing strong together, the better your prospects for closing a great deal.

3. Pay attention to middle management.

More often than not, middle management — as opposed to the C-suite — controls the narrative for employees and customers. Because managers are often more accessible and work more closely with these stakeholders, they are trusted. So, you’ll want to give middle managers the same attention you give to executives.

According to Sarah Gershman, Executive Speech Coach, CEO of Green Room Speakers, and one of Audacia’s partners, it’s important for middle managers to feel prepared to communicate appropriately throughout the deal process. “Middle managers spend most of their time interfacing with customers and doing the work,” says Sarah. “And telling the story of the merger doesn’t come naturally when you’re in the weeds. So it’s a smart idea to find an expert who can help middle management understand and empathize with their audience.”

Beyond prepared remarks, there will be questions and plenty of uncertainty. Managers are the first line of defense in helping to stabilize nerves, and they are your best line of offense in sharing enthusiasm for the next step of this transformative event. That said, the key when answering questions is to show that you understand the question. “Deep listening is a critical skill here,” says Sarah. “You want to listen not only to hear the question, but also to understand what’s behind the question and what’s at stake.”

What if someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer? According to Sarah, as long as you have demonstrated that you have really heard the question, you can feel empowered to say the magic words, “I don’t know. Let me check on that and get back to you.” Remember, it is always better to share authentic and accurate information than incorrect information or speculation.

4. Clearly articulate the narrative.

For both the buyer and seller, it is essential to be able to articulate the narrative around why this deal, why now, and why this property is best in XYZ hands. “Keep in mind,” says Sarah, “people have spoken and unspoken needs.” Unspoken needs are usually driven by emotions, like fear. To clearly articulate your narrative, you need to drill down and find the precise emotion you’re after. “If you want to inspire your audience, that’s different from motivating them or energizing them.” 

With an M&A deal, addressing the other side’s unspoken needs goes far beyond explaining your unique capabilities and differentiated IP. You must also be able to demonstrate an understanding of your company’s markets, customers, opportunities, and competitive pressures. And telling the story of your company’s value within the context of the deal is key.

The bottom line: Despite the headwinds identified, the M&A outlook for 2022 is very good.

If you’re ready to ride the M&A wave this year, you need the right partners by your side. At Audacia Strategies, we’re prepared to work with you and your team as you navigate the next big deal. Contact us to discuss your M&A strategy.

Photo credit: Modern Businesspeople Having A Video Conference In A Boardroom by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

IPO

The IPO and SPAC Market is Hot. Is Your Firm Ready for the Public Eye?

2021 has been a record-breaking year for Initial Public Offerings (IPOs). Analysts predict that by December 31, we will have seen roughly 1,000 companies hit the market. As of now, there have been 372 IPOs and 535 SPACs, for a total of 907 companies representing $266 billion in proceeds. 

Among the most notable companies on the upcoming IPO agenda are giants like mobile payment company Stripe, San Francisco-based Instacart, which has more than half the U.S. online grocery delivery market, and Impossible Foods, the maker of plant-based burgers. Others include Databricks, an artificial intelligence company and a Brazilian digital bank, Nubank, backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

With the market this hot, we know that you may be considering joining their ranks and raising capital either through a traditional IPO or a SPAC. And while you can find plenty of IPO checklists and guides, making the process seem deceptively simple, the decision to take your firm public requires careful consideration. So, we thought it might be appropriate to look at some of the questions founders tend to overlook.

Make Sure You Know Your ‘Why’

There are a lot of good reasons to go public, but being the CEO of a public company adds several layers of complexity to your job. So it’s important to make sure you know your ‘why’ and why your ‘why’ makes you unique in your market (AKA your differentiator). This will help you stay grounded throughout the tough moments.

Many firms may think, “I need to raise capital, so I think I’ll take my company public.” Maybe you need access to capital to support planned acquisitions or maybe you want better access to debt and equity markets to carry out your growth plans. That access comes with costs both in flexibility and on the bottomline. Whatever your reason, spend some serious time evaluating it from every angle. A murder board can be a great resource here as well.

Another reason knowing your ‘why’ is important is that you need to be prepared to own the IPO process. Don’t assume that the investment bankers, lawyers, accountants, and consultants you hire will manage the process. Make sure you (and your team) manage the timeline and understand the process. Ask a lot of questions. Avoidable delays may cause you to miss your window in your industry. When you stay in charge of the timeline, you stay in control of the process.

What are SPAC IPOs?

In the past few years, we’ve seen a surge in what’s called a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) and these relatively new types of deal are fanning the flames of the IPO market. Also known as a blank check company, SPACs are another way to raise capital.

Not your typical IPO stock, SPACs start out as shell companies that raise money by issuing stock. Then they use the proceeds, combined with bank financing to buy and take privately held companies public. SPACs typically set two-year time limits on completing the acquisition and if the deal doesn’t go through, then investors get their money back.

Although SPACs aren’t new, they have seen a rise in popularity after COVID-19 shut down the IPO market in Q1 of 2020. Prior to 2020, we were seeing about 15 SPACs per quarter. During Q3 of 2020, that number jumped to 82, and it jumped again to 129 the following quarter. In the first quarter of this year, we saw a record of 298 SPACs.

But whether SPACs are a temporary trend or have real staying power is yet to be determined.

3 IPO Tips from an IR Pro

There’s one other point that founders should be aware of when considering whether it’s time to take their company public: it’s all about the investors. Sure, you need to focus on the SEC regulatory requirements and keeping the analysts on your side. But when it comes down to brass tacks, public companies live and die by their investors’ decisions.

To that end, here are four tips from Managing Director of Investor Relations and Financial Transformation, Mike Pici:

1. Get your house in order.

There’s no reason to be in a hurry to go public. In fact, we’re seeing trends go in the opposite direction. Whereas a startup receiving a healthy stream of venture capital might have once gone public in four years, today the process might take eight years or more. Companies are waiting longer and growing larger before they go public. 

This is a positive trend because it is hard to course correct when you’re being publicly held to the results. So make certain your house, both financial and non-financial, is in order before going public.

2. Be prepared to show a track record of growth.

If you’re thinking like an investor, then you know that investors aren’t just looking for positive cash flow or past success. They’re also looking for evidence of future growth. The amount of revenue is not as important as showing healthy growth quarter over quarter. To this end, we recommend that you show a minimum of 1-2 quarters of growth before filing for your IPO.

3. Consider whether the firm can withstand the amount of stress going public will create.

You’ve likely faced obstacles in the growth of your business. And you should be proud of how you were able to face and overcome those obstacles. But if you believe overcoming adversity qualifies you to take your company public, you would do well to talk to other founders who have gone through the process.

You need to know what you’re walking into before you sit down at the table. The stress of going public is a particular type of challenge and while most founders will only do it once in the lifetime of their businesses, remember that you’ll be working with experts who have done hundreds of deals. Make sure you and your management team are up to the task.

Your IPO Roadmap:

Once you have decided to take your firm public, you’ll need a plan. At Audacia Strategies, we work with our clients through every stage of the IPO process. Here is a preview, which we call our IPO Roadmap:

Part 1: Developing your IPO story 

Although you’ll have multiple filings that describe your business, your risks, and your opportunities, you’ll also want to develop an overarching narrative to share with diverse audiences. Now is the time to refine your value proposition, establish credibility and proof points, set your guidance strategy, and set up internal processes to establish consistent communications.

Part 2: Building an Investor Relations (IR) program

A successful initial public offering requires syncing up several moving parts. If doing a product launch feels like playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” an IPO feels like playing “Beethoven’s 9th.” Of course, to play a symphony, you need an orchestra. For your successful IPO, that means building an IR program. You can schedule a consultation with our Managing Director of IR, Mike Pici, here.

Part 3: Navigating life after IPO

Once you’ve successfully taken your firm public, it’s time to follow through on the commitments you’ve made and deliver against those proof points. Remember the IPO is really just the beginning of your journey.

If you’re ready to start your IPO journey, contact us today to discuss your needs. Our team is ready to develop a transformational strategy that works for you.

Photo credit: Team of two women analyzing charts and diagrams by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

c-suite change

C-suite Change Can Be Energizing or Panic-Inducing. The Choice is Yours

Does this sound familiar? Your organization is one of the bright, rising stars in your industry. It has taken years of hard work, but you’ve finally reached a point where you have strong leadership across the board, a steady vision for the future, and everyone from the executive team down to the employees on the frontlines are working together like a well-oiled machine.

And then…the CEO turns in their resignation letter. Does the prospect of C-suite change send a shock wave of panic through the company? Or are you ready to guide everyone through a smooth transition?

If your initial response is panic, that’s okay. This is the perfect time (i.e., before this scenario becomes your reality) to come up with a plan. Let’s look at how you can reframe c-suite change as an opportunity rather than a potentially destabilizing event.

Revisit Company Culture for Successful C-Suite Change

First, recognize that C-suite change is a natural part of company evolution. The person you had steering the ship during the start-up phase may not be the best person to lead you through the next stage and beyond. Thinking about how far you’ve come and how your culture has evolved will help you choose the right CEO for this next phase.

Also, if you’re moving from a founder as CEO to a new corporate executive, you’ll want to consider how much of the company culture is tied up with the founder’s personality and whether that makes sense going forward.

For example, suppose your Founder and CEO is a literal rockstar. He plays the guitar and performs regularly with his semi-famous band. He has even been interviewed by Rolling Stone. It’s an interesting draw and has given the marketing team lots of fun campaign ideas. But is this crucial to the DNA of the organization? In other words, is it critical that the new CEO also play the guitar?

Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that you need to figure out what is part of the DNA of your organization and look for a new CEO that shares the same values — someone for whom your culture is authentic to who they are as a leader.

Why is culture so important when considering C-suite change? Well, it’s likely that culture is one big reason that scaling and reaching the point where everyone is working together like a well-oiled machine has happened. So as you consider the selection and managing of the C-suite change for customers, investors, and employees, keeping the culture consistent should be your first priority. 

How to Keep Company Culture Consistent:

Once you begin to see your CEO’s resignation as part of the evolution of the organization, you can turn your attention to deciding, likely with the help of your board, what is crucial to the company’s DNA. Take your time here because decisions about how to separate the former CEO from the company culture will determine whether stakeholders perceive the C-suite change as energizing or destabilizing.

Keep the following tips in mind:

1. Have a good sense of the culture as seen through the eyes of employees. 

Find a way to take the pulse of your employees. One good approach is to use an external team to conduct Voice of the Employee interviews. You may be surprised that what you think of as crucial to the culture of your firm is really hidden from your employees and vice versa. So this kind of research is hugely beneficial for smooth executive transitions.

It’s also important to announce the transition itself to employees at the same time as you announce the C-suite change publicly. If you announce internally and externally at different times, rumors will fly and rumors are a huge source of instability during big transitions.

We recommend having a specific employee communication plan to address key cultural issues and how the C-suite change will affect the organization from a macro perspective. Also, as soon as possible, set up a town hall meeting where employees can be formally introduced to the new CEO and have their questions and concerns addressed.

2. Ground everyone back into the company strategy.

While the CEO may be changing, the company strategy is staying the same, especially if we’re sticking with the scenario where everything is going well and the CEO needs to move on. This means it’s a good opportunity to go back to basics. 

Let your mission, vision, and values drive you forward. Get everyone to recommit to company fundamentals and talk openly about what is changing and what will be staying the same.

3. Be as honest and transparent as possible.

This third recommendation is a big one, so strap in. As soon as your executive gives you notice that they’re even thinking about moving on, you want to have a strategy in place. This will allow you to be as honest and transparent as possible. This goes for all of your key leadership, not just your CEO.

Perhaps you will want to call a board meeting to open discussions about all of the topics above. Perhaps you’ll want to make an announcement (internally and externally) early and reassure everyone that the transition period will last several months. Whatever your first move, having a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) around C-suite change is a smart idea.

In a previous blog article, we talked about the elements that plan should include whether your C-suite change is expected or unexpected.

4. Know your game clock.

Timing is also important here. The more you can be in control of the timeline, the greater your ability to control the message of the transition. Unexpected changes can raise questions about the stability of an organization. One way to ease these concerns is to share (at a high level)  your succession planning process with key stakeholders so that they understand the corporate calculus behind the leadership selection. 

For public companies: if you have a planned transition with a good amount of lead time, it’s good to make this announcement as part of your quarterly reporting cadence. If the transition is unexpected, public companies will likely have to disclose the leadership change via an 8-K within four business days, but make sure to consult with legal counsel to determine your specific disclosure requirements.

5. Teamwork makes the dream work.

If possible, make time in your transition strategy to allow the outgoing and incoming CEOs to work together. If appropriate, having a “pass the torch moment” can be a critical element to  transferring credibility and trust from the outgoing CEO to the incoming CEO. Part of this strategy should include coordinating their narrative. As an example, the outgoing CEO may talk about why they built the company and why the new CEO is the right person to carry the mantle forward. This gives the new CEO the opportunity to share their own vision about the future of the company.

Finally, make sure your new executive is prepared to take over. Is the new executive on the same page when it comes to the company culture? Have you defined your key messages? Have you acknowledged that C-suite change requires an acclimation period that can take at least 30 days? Have you organized listening sessions and key meetings with stakeholders? Do you have a comprehensive introduction strategy?

For our private equity-backed companies: if your CEO has experience with public company boards and they will be transitioning to working with your private equity board, do they understand what that entails? This is a helpful resource to share from McKinsey

C-suite change can be a powerful signal of an organization’s evolution. If you’re ready to move into the next phase of your company’s metamorphosis, our team can help make the transition energizing instead of panic-inducing. Let’s talk about your next business transformation!

Photo credit: Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

back to the office

3 Tips for Hitting a Home-Run As You Bring Your Team Back to the Office

As remote workers are being called back to the office here in the U.S., many are experiencing a reverse of the identity crisis we collectively experienced during the early days of the 2020 shutdown. Whereas when offices shut down we felt our routines being abruptly disrupted, now we have the opportunity to intentionally re-enter our post-pandemic work lives.

It’s time for leaders to consciously decide how to make re-entry as smooth as possible for their employees. And if it sounds like I’m asking you to come up with a strategic plan, that’s because I am.

See, re-entry is not something to be taken lightly. You can’t expect your team to go from languishing to flourishing overnight just because they’re back in the office. But if you send a message of realistic optimism. If you make it clear that this is a time to reset and build our future together, with time, you will see a new, stronger team emerge from the pandemic ashes.

So, let’s discuss your triumphant back to the office strategy.

Reconstructing How Work is Done

Despite all the challenges of figuring out how to juggle childcare while working and creating healthy boundaries around work, surveys show that most people enjoy working from home. A McKinsey study from June 2020 found that 80% of workers enjoyed working remotely. And while many now prefer to have the option of returning to the office, there’s still a strong preference (55%) for working from home at least two or three days a week.

The pandemic forced the question: is this really how work should be done? And leading organizations are taking this question seriously. They’re questioning assumptions about what employees need to do their best work and re-examining the role of being together in the office.

There’s, of course, no one-size-fits-all answer here. Reconstructing how work gets done will look different for every organization. this is about achieving your business and cultural outcomes. 

Get your managers and teams together (you want a diversity of perspectives!) and have a discussion around the following:

  • What are the most important systems and processes for each major business, geography, and function?
  • How can you boldly re-envision each of these systems and processes?
  • How does being physically present in the office enhance professional development?
  • How does being physically present in the office push a project forward at different stages? For example, previously, a business unit may have generated new ideas by convening a meeting, brainstorming on a whiteboard, and assigning someone to refine the results. A new process might include a period of asynchronous brainstorming across a digital channel, like Slack, followed by a multi-hour period of debate via video conference.
  • What values, practices, interactions, and rituals most promote the culture your organization wants to develop?
  • What suboptimal habits and systems can you do away with completely?

Of course, reconstructing how work gets done at your organization is no easy task. Undoubtedly, tough choices will arise and leaders will need to be empowered to make decisions that move individual business units and businesses forward.

In addition, it’s important to recognize that permanent change requires strong change-management skills. Both leaders and workers need to maintain a level of flexibility that allows for pivots based on what’s working.

The good news is that if you hit a home-run here, you will achieve the culture you’ve always wanted: an environment where everyone feels safe to enjoy their work, collaborate with their colleagues, and achieve their personal goals while achieving the organization’s objectives.

How to Hit a Home-Run:

1. Have a Reboarding Plan

Once you have gathered together your team to envision the future, it’s time to make that vision a reality. So, you’ll want to treat this return to the office like you would treat a merger or an acquisition or a new product launch.

Yes, making sure your return to the office is triumphant and not tragic is all about having a solid reboarding plan. First, consider how you do onboarding. Typically, this occurs at the very early stages of employment. But forward-thinking companies view onboarding as a strategic process that filters throughout an employee’s experience and can be leveraged at any point in a person’s career with the company.

This is where reboarding comes in. After a big transformation, like returning to the office following a pandemic, it’s time to reintroduce employees to policies and procedures that they may have let slide in various ways. It’s also an important time to introduce any new policies and procedures.

If you take a people-centered approach to your reboarding plan, you will be in a better position to help your employees embrace the new changes and make a smooth transition back to the office.

2. Lead with Empathy

Looking at the unemployment data and what’s happening with economic recovery, some economists have taken to calling this the “Take This Job and Shove It” economy. Employees want to feel valued and they seem to have little trouble quitting or moving on from positions where they aren’t feeling this way. A year of grieving and dealing with an elevated level of fear has reminded us all that life is short.

One way to ensure you’re recognizing the humanity of this moment and not simply focused on your organization’s bottom line is to lead with empathy. For example, instead of recalling everyone 40 hours per week and expecting a return to pre-pandemic levels of productivity overnight, consider spreading out the physical return and phasing in policy changes aimed at increasing productivity.

Some organizations are even anticipating a summer slowdown and intentionally working that into their strategic plans for the rest of 2021. Giving your team a break this summer is another way to show employees, who were stressed before lockdown, that you understand the toll the past 16 months have taken. After a true recharge this summer, everyone can return to work in full force this fall.

3. Communicate Well Both Internally and Externally

Above all, making the transition back to the office successfully will require strong communication guardrails both internally and externally. First, establish clear, regular, two-way communication with your team. This will allow employees to feel as if they are in the loop and that their input matters. Also, make sure not to limit communications to only what has changed. Talk about what isn’t going to change as well.

Second, make sure to communicate early and often. Once you have your reboarding plan in place, you can communicate that plan internally with your managers and employees. Make sure they understand what is happening when and what responsibilities they have within the plan so they can manage their own expectations. All of this should be firmly established before you start communicating externally.

Next, make time for collective venting and open communication. You want your employees to feel free to participate in any future changes and to get buy-in from them, they need to feel heard. Collective rituals are one way to help your team feel supported and heard.

For example, you could reserve an hour after lunch on Fridays where teams come together virtually or in-person for a group venting session. Allow everyone some time to check-in with each other about anything that’s causing them stress. Make sure to end the meeting with time for each person to express gratitude. Moving, in this way, from feeling stuck to expressing gratitude can help to navigate the range of emotions everyone experiences.

Returning remote workers to the office is a big transformation for any organization. Having a strategic plan in place gives you the best chance for success. With the above in mind, you’ll make strides toward achieving the culture you’ve always wanted and supporting your team as they re-learn how to thrive in our post-pandemic future.

It’s an exciting time! This is our chance to reset and intentionally redefine what work means to all of us. Audacia Strategies is ready to partner with you as you make the transition. Let’s chat about how to reconstruct the way work gets done at your organization.

Photo attribution: Team of investors meeting in corporate office with documents and laptop by Jacob Lund Photography from Noun Project

communications guardrails

Communications Guardrails: Your Key to Forward-Thinking, Innovative, and Grounded Messages

We recently posted this blog article about strategies for making your underlying messages consistent with how you want your brand to be perceived by the world. With the speed of information dissemination in our digital age, you can’t afford to be reactive. But being proactive is a real challenge too. Anticipating all the ways our messages might be received is a tall order.

However, there is another way to ensure you are shaping conversations, rather than allowing conversations about your firm to be shaped by those outside of your organization. All you have to do is come up with some strong communications guardrails and stick to them. Let’s dig in!

Communications guardrails? What does that mean? 

Communications guardrails are a list of do’s and don’ts that are unique to your organization. They let the world know what your organization does and does not stand for. You can think of guardrails as rules, but that makes them sound really restrictive. 

We prefer to think of your guardrails as well… guardrails. They are boundaries that keep everyone corralled just enough to ensure that the conversations you’re having both inside and outside of your organization are forward-thinking, innovative, and grounded.

Your guardrails will also act as guides as your communications evolve. They include your values, branding messages, and talking points, but we encourage our clients to go even further. To start, ask your team these five questions:

  • What are we actively doing to show our commitment to our purpose, vision, and values?
  • What are our firm’s priorities when it comes to communications?
  • What industry-wide beliefs and best practices do we accept?
  • What industry-wide beliefs and best practices do we reject?
  • Do we have a solid crisis management plan? (because if communications are going to go off the rails, it will happen during a crisis)

With the answers to these questions in mind, you can begin creating your own guardrails. 

Also, you’ll want to consider what has worked for you and your competitors in the past. But don’t forget to look outside of your industry for ideas too. If you want to be out front leading, you’ve got to think beyond those tired, worn patterns.

Finally, avoid the 7 Deadly Sins of Business Communications:

1. Pride: Lack of consideration for or understanding of your audience.

2. Envy: Trying to ‘copy and paste’ another organization’s messaging because it worked for them.

3. Gluttony: Know when enough is enough and skip the buzzwords.

4. Sloth: There are no real marketing “shortcuts” or “hacks.” You’ve got to put in the work.

5. Lust: Beware of falling in love with the latest trends or tools. Keep your communications genuine.

6. Anger: When communications are perceived as angry, defensive, or overly negative, your audience will tune out the message.

7. Greed: It’s okay to make the ask, but make sure you consider carefully who’s winning in the deals you make.

Time to Give Those Communications Guardrails a Stress Test

Once you have come up with your set of guardrails, the next step is to test them. This is yet another reason the guardrail metaphor is apt. Road crews don’t build guardrails and then put them out on the street without doing a proper stress test. 

In the same way, you don’t want to assume that your communications guardrails are solid and test them out in the “wild.” You want to test them internally first. 

One method we use with our clients here is the Murder Board. The term murder board (AKA “red team”) originated with the military, but it’s shorthand for creating a team of rivals or a committee of killjoys whose sole job is to poke holes in your team’s best ideas. It’s great not only for testing communications guardrails, but for any new idea you might come up with.

In short, the murder board is tasked with locating the problems, risks, and bugs insiders might miss. So bring your guardrails in front of a murder board.

Murder Boards are beneficial in a variety of situations related to communication guardrails:

  • When prepping crisis communications, the murder board can hep you prepare for any number of scenarios and develop do’s and don’ts for your CEO and spokespeople.
  • When prepping to talk to investors or analysts, the murder board can role play scenarios with your CEO to ensure she has answers to any number of “tricky” questions.
  • When prepping your sales team or customer service on the frontlines, the murder board can get them ready to reply to customers who can be some of the toughest critics, especially during a crisis.

For high-stakes communication situations, there’s nothing better than a murder board. Finding your communications guardrails is a high-stakes situation. Without guardrails, you’ll find everyday communications feeling chaotic and overwhelming and crises quickly spinning out of control.

When you take the time to create your communications guardrails with your team, though, you have the opportunity to shape the conversations you’re having and to lead your industry into a brighter future. 

What are your communications guardrails?

At Audacia Strategies, we’re used to fielding questions from executive clients about how they can be more aware of the underlying messages they’re sending. Our go-to answer is let’s work on your guardrails. Ready to see us in action? Contact us to schedule an introductory call!